There were some strong reactions with the announcement of the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp rebranding and today’s unveiling of the Binghamton Rumble Ponies—but in the end, the real issue in both instances is how to handle change in a tradition-bound industry.
The Jacksonville Suns moniker has been around since 1962—virtually an eternity in Minor League Baseball. Yesterday team management announced a rebranding to the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp: quite the change, all things considered. Owner Ken Babby isn’t afraid of bold rebrands: a shift from the Akron Aeros to the Akron RubberDucks led to a revitalization of the Eastern League franchise, including dramatic attendance increases and awards for the rebranding (including one from Ballpark Digest and a MacPhail Award from Minor League Baseball).
There is a lot of tradition with the Suns moniker, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into attendance or merchandise sales—and if you are the team owner, those are the metrics that matter. In 2016, the Suns averaged 4,197 fans per game at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, good for 17th in Class AA and 64th overall in Minor League Baseball. It’s safe to say the Suns are underperforming given the size of the Jacksonville market, and the rebranding is an exercise designed to directly address those shortcomings.
Similarly, there was grumbling today in social media about the Binghamton Mets switching monikers to Rumble Ponies. This move, at least, has some local ties: the greater Binghamton area—the “triple cities” of Binghamton, Johnson City and Endicott—is regarded as the Carousel Capital of the World, and the Rumble Ponies refers to “a herd of fierce horses that no carousel center pole can contain,” per the team.
You can’t argue that Rumble Ponies isn’t a significant upgrade over Mets. And while there were folks cheering on the Stud Muffins moniker in the name-the-team contest, it was a certainty this name would not pass MiLB muster.
But change is hard, and there were some sharp words on Twitter and Facebook about the shifts to Jumbo Shrimp and Rumble Ponies. Fair enough: it’s great that fans care enough to raise a fuss. But there is a predictable timeline to these protests, going way back to 1996, when the Lansing Lugnuts and a cartoonish logo, Big Lug, were unveiled to the world. Terrible, said the critics; this makes a mockery of the baseball world. Once the games started, the team was a hit and Lugnuts merchandise was among MiLB best sellers. The same process was repeated with the unveilings of the Richmond Flying Squirrels, Akron RubberDucks, Lehigh Valley IronPigs, El Paso Chihuahuas and Biloxi Shuckers. All outrageous; all decried by purists. Not so coincidentally, these teams were in the top 25 in MiLB merchandise sales in 2014 and 2015.
It takes a lot to stand out in the crowd these days, and an outrageous branding exercise leads the way. So we will continue seeing these outrageous team names for a very simple reason: they work. Yes, change is hard–but it has an excellent track record of working out for the best.